Orbex will build a Scottish launch site

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle developer Orbex announced Nov. 1 that it has reached agreements to begin construction of a launch site in northern Scotland for its rocket that will allow a first launch by the end of of 2023.

Orbex said it has signed a lease with Scottish development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for a 10-acre site in the north-west part of Sutherland county in northern Scotland. The lease is for 50 years with an option for an additional 25 years. The deal is technically a sublease, as HIE leases the land from its owners, the Melness Crofters’ Estate.

The company will build a facility at the site for the launch of its small Prime launcher it is developing, accommodating up to 12 launches per year. Construction of the site will begin “imminent,” Orbex chief executive Chris Larmour told SpaceNews, and will be completed in 2023.

Orbex has not disclosed details of the facilities that will be built there, although an illustration shows a basic launch pad but little other infrastructure. Larmour said the cost to build and operate the site over three years will be “over” 20 million pounds ($23 million), funded by Orbex.

Spaceport announcement comes two weeks after the close of a Series C funding round by Orbex, raising £40.4m from multiple investors. One of the new investors is Jacobs, the US-based engineering company whose job it is to be the prime contractor for the ground systems used by NASA’s Space Launch System. Jacobs will serve as prime contractor for the construction of the spaceport.

Plans for so-called Sutherland Spaceport date back to 2018, when the British space agency has chosen the site as its preferred location for a vertical launch installation. At a time, it announced awards to Lockheed Martin and Orbex for launch from installation.

Development of the site, however, has been slowed by years of environmental reviews, regulatory approvals and legal battles. In 2020, Lockheed said it would instead carry out the UK Space Agency-funded launch at Shetland Space Center, now called SaxaVord Spaceport, a commercial launch site under development in the Shetland Islands. Lockheed will use ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket for this mission, tentatively scheduled for 2023.

The spaceport will be dedicated to Orbex Prime launches. “Orbex is the first European launcher company to also operate a dedicated spaceport,” Larmour said in a statement. “This is a significant competitive advantage for the company, which will make it very easy for us to work with customers as we expand our operations.”

“The construction of Sutherland Spaceport will mark a major step forward for Scotland’s vertical launch capability and lead to the creation of a range of new jobs in the local community and beyond,” said Ian Annett, Deputy Chief Executive. from the British Space Agency, in the same statement. “I am confident that this new agreement will enable Orbex to strengthen the UK’s position as Europe’s premier destination for commercial spaceflight services and international investment.”

Neither Sutherland nor SaxaVord, however, are in line to host the first orbital launch from the UK. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne airborne launch system is currently at Spaceport Cornwall, an airport in South West England, in preparation for its “Start Me Up” mission. This launch is scheduled for sometime in November, pending receipt of a launch license from the UK Civil Aviation Authority.

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